Ryan D: Maybe it’s an American thing, but culture and media have trained me to almost always root for the revolution. Revolution is often associated with the fiery passion of change, the usurpation of the dolorous and oppressive status-quo, backed by the free-thinkers and do-gooders. Or maybe it’s the idea being studied in psychology about peoples’ need to root for the underdog. This, however, has not exactly been the case in the current run of Black Panther. Or has it? Issue six takes us a bit deeper into the side of the revolutionaries and the monarchy, and bring some new variables into the mix.
T’Challa and his council discuss the mounting ideological threat posed by professor of politics and philosophy, Birnin Azzaria. Do not get me wrong, I think that these expository sections are necessary and crucial within this plot which features so many wheels within wheels; however, I enjoy newcomer writer Ta-Nehisi Coates mixing up his pacing in storytelling, or mixing up his system of delivering crucial information to the reader. Next, we see T’Challa’s War Dogs on the offensive — continuing the trend from last issue — against the Midnight Angels; however, this band of usurping women are not alone, as Tetu, who controls vines and mind-controller Zenzi of The People join the fray to turn the tide. Artist Chris Sprouse does a solid job with this sequence:
One must admit that the War Dogs look pretty badass. Objectively, they’re cool as hell. Sprouse also continues his sometimes masterful use of comic-craft and visual storytelling with something as simple as the panel of Aneka responding to the shots being fired superimposed within the larger panel of the source of the gunshots — a task which only really works through the magic that is comic books.
T’Challa finds himself desperate enough in this issue to conscript the help from others — first Tony Stark, replete with his trademark wit. This struck me as interesting, seeing as thus far in the comic, the creative team chose not to include any of the Black Panther’s superhero network as possible solutions to the crises presented during this arc. Tony here offers his unique perspective on one of the many antagonists in the series, Ezekiel Stane, who, unlike many of the other “baddies”, sports purely nefarious goals; all of the other malcontents to the throne do so for very believable, human reasons, often making it difficult to label them “bad guys”, no matter how much one is rooting for the Panther.
This brings me to my biggest concern about this run thus far: I have not cared much for T’Challa. The king of Wakanda often seems like the least dynamic character being offered here. Whereas all of the other characters in which he is in conflict possess deep political and social reasons for their fight, this Black Panther seems to be running purely on duty to his nation and pride in his bloodline. While these are, on paper, plenty to motivate a character, they are difficult things for me to relate to as a reader. I have also gotten the feeling that T’Challa moves mostly due to external motivating forces, in the sense that, had he come into reign during a time of peace, there really wouldn’t be much going on in the head of the character. Saying that, I very much enjoyed him being allowed back into the role of brilliant scientist and inquisitive mind in this issue.
Jonathan Hickman, for example, would constantly give readers a reminder of just how genius his Tony Stark and Reed Richards were during any given issue, and it seems to me just now that Coates affords T’Challa to play anything aside from the desperate, impulsive, and reactionary monarch we have seen as of late.
One other reason why I have been tentative about T’Challa can be explained by one of the side plots: Shuri, T’Challa’s sister and former Black Panther herself, receiving wisdom on an ethereal plane from the All-Mother. Coates dedicates about a fifth of this issue to the beautiful allegories found within the stories told by the Mother to Shuri, and while I do, of course, find the exploration of the cultural heritage of the nation as integral to the plot as the fisticuffs, these chapters give me a feeling that T’Challa will be relying upon a deus ex machina in the form of his sister’s return to resolve the issues now plaguing him instead of going upon that journey himself, depriving the audience of a full character arc for the titular character.
Drew! I didn’t have the space to talk about T’Challa defending the revolutionaries, or his getting captured leading to the reveal at the end of the issue! Did any of these things excite you, or catch you by surprise?
Drew: A lot in this series is catching me by surprise, but I’m not sure those are always pleasant surprises. I think your comparison to Hickman’s Avengers is apt — themes of the morality of leaders are still central — but it also illustrates how valuable experience in writing a monthly comic can be. Where Hickman could seed plotlines far in advance (arguably too far in advance), Coates is a bit more locked in to each issue. It gives the series a welcome episodic feel, but robs it of longer-term build-ups.
Take, for example, Doctor Doom’s nanites. This series has made references to Doctor Doom’s attack on Wakanda, but this is the first issue nanites have been mentioned. It also happens to be the issue where the presence of those nanites become important. A passing familiarity with Chekhov’s gun dictates that the nanites must be put to dramatic use at some point, but doing it so immediately after their introduced is a bit like introducing a gun only to have it immediately go off — it doesn’t release tension so much as confusion. As it is, the plotting reads a bit like when a kid botches a joke, adding that, by the way, the three men who walked into the bar were priests, just before delivering the punchline.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s not enough time to give the nanites any emotional weight. This isn’t just a convenient tool introduced immediately before it was needed; it’s a tool that has in important historical significance to this character. I can understand how repurposing a weapon once used against Wakanda could have emotional significance to T’Challa, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with his attitude towards these nanites for that repurposing to have any real meaning. As it is, those nanites could have been replaced by miniature cameras of T’Challa’s own design without altering the tenor of this issue at all. Maybe that means the gun actually hasn’t gone off yet, but as the next issue promises even more irons in the fire, I suspect the story of T’Challa coming to embrace the nanites that threatened his kingdom isn’t going to get much more attention any time soon.
I don’t want to mischaracterize this series; Coates clearly can play the long game, and has slowly built up the threat of The People over the entirety of the run thus far. But there continue to be these stumbling blocks where ideas are introduced and disappear far too quickly to leave any kind of impact, imploding before they ever have a chance to gestate. I can understand T’Challa’s decision to surreptitiously record Stane’s monologue as a consequent of the video of his counterrevolution meeting that went viral in issue 5, but I’m utterly baffled that we’re meant to put so much stock in T’Challa’s public relations. We have no perspective on Wakanda outside of the characters locked in battle — we don’t know any characters who might be swayed one way or the other by these videos, anyone whose opinions are suddenly so central to T’Challa’s battle for the soul of his country.
For me, that’s precisely the problem. Wakanda is fictional. Its technology and mythology are fictional. It’s impossible for us to imagine the day-to-day lives of its people because they live in a made up future-world and believe in a deity we’re only vaguely familiar with. What are their hopes? What are their fears? Do they generally feel oppressed by their King, or do they have faith in their system of government?
The only indicators we get are presented on a computer screen, which we all have to admit can grossly misrepresent the general opinion of the public. Do the calls for revolution come from a majority of Wakanda, or a tiny but vocal minority with a strong web presence?
Which maybe leads me to a bigger problem: T’Challa doesn’t know any regular people. I suspect we could relate to the average Wakandan just fine if we met them, but T’Challa only knows war councils and elite soldiers. As such, T’Challa doesn’t have the normal every-day problems that have always made Marvel’s heroes so relateable. I have struggled to tell crushes how I’ve felt about them, but I’ve never struggled to quell a revolution poised to unseat me as monarch. All of Marvel’s heroes are remarkable in some way, but they tend to be grounded by their supporting casts — or at least their relationships to one another. The Fantastic Four may all be remarkable, but their relationships are simple: friend, wife, brother. T’Challa has a mother and a sister, but they’re both sidelined right now. Storm’s presence in the next issue might add some much-needed emotional clarity — nothing cuts through the clutter like a rapport with an ex — but for this series’ long-term health, I have to hope Coates fleshes out a supporting cast soon.
I’m optimistic about this series going forward. I hope the pacing issues that seem to plague it will smooth out as Coates has more time to lay the groundwork, and I think the same could be true of the holes in the supporting cast. Writing a monthly comic is a daunting task, and I don’t envy Coates learning the ropes in the public eye.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?